Breast cancer: debunking the most common myths

We have all seen the pink ribbon associated with breast cancer awareness, but how much do we really know about this disease that affects approximately 1 in 8 women? We catch up with an inspiring young scientist, Dr Jingmei Li, whose work is focused on genetic factors associated with particularly aggressive tumors and ask her to debunk the most common myths and to share her insights on the subject.

DiscovHER: There seems to be a growing awareness of breast cancer around the world. In your opinion, how can the general public help advance awareness and research?

Jingmei Li: Give informed consent to participate in breast cancer research studies! Most of the time all it takes to participate as a subject in a research study is to fill out a questionnaire. This can be done while waiting at a clinic or in the comfort of one’s home. As an epidemiologist we need data to advance scientific research – a lot of data – and we need people to actively participate.

DiscovHER: What are some of the most common myths about breast cancer? For example, do you have a lower risk of having breast cancer if there is no history of the disease in your family?

Jingmei Li: You actually do have a lower risk of developing breast cancer if there is no family history of breast cancer. A woman who has a first-degree relative with breast cancer is twice as likely to develop breast cancer herself, when compared to a woman without family history of breast cancer. This risk increases with more first-degree relatives afflicted with breast cancer.

The top of the list of breast cancer myths must be that men do not get breast cancer. Men do get breast cancer too! Approximately 1% of all breast cancers are found in men. And no, breast cancer is not contagious.

DiscovHER: Are there any preventative measures that women can take to protect themselves?

Jingmei Li: There are options available for chemoprevention, i.e. taking drugs to decrease the risk of developing a disease before the disease presents itself. For example, tamoxifen is approved by the FDA to decrease breast cancer risk in high-risk women. Note that it’s for high-risk women. Side effects from drugs are very common, so one does have to weigh the pros and cons. Otherwise, the best advice is actually to pay attention to one’s body, check for lumps, and go for regular screening and checkups.

DiscovHER: What are some of the implications of your research for women around the world?

Jingmei Li: Breast cancer is not just one disease. There are breast cancers you die with, and there are breast cancers you die from. My work focuses on differentiating between the two using genetic signatures and profiles. It is important to identify deadly cancers early and treat them in time.

DiscovHER: Is there one most important fact women should know about breast cancer?

Jingmei Li: It is one of the most common cancers among women. But the relative survival rate, if detected and treated early, is also among the highest. Seek treatment early and in time!

Jingmei Li (Genome Institute of Singapore & Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institute, Sweden) received a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2014. 

For Women in Science

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